After taking over as UCD President, Professor Andrew Deeks speaks to Killian Woods about the his academic career in Australia, addressing HEA funding at third level, and balancing the international relations with efforts domestically
Beginning any new job can be daunting. It can be difficult to know where to start, how to remember every face you are introduced to, and even get accustomed to a new schedule. These three factors are magnified further when that new job is taking the helm at Ireland’s largest university.
Professor Andrew Deeks took over from outgoing UCD President, Dr Hugh Brady, at the beginning of this calendar year, becoming the ninth President of UCD. His selection represents arguably the most progressive appointment to the President’s office, as Prof. Deeks is the first external candidate to get the role and also the first non-Irish head of UCD.
The importance of UCD having a new president should not be underestimated. Students, more so than the staff of UCD, may especially feel that there is little change to observe. If there are no drastic differences to their everyday college experience, then in their mind nothing will have changed. It is even questionable if more than half than the student population know there is a new president since the beginning of the new year.
Even if their sole interaction with the UCD President is a generic handshake when they attend their graduation ceremony, there should be a certain level of respectful consideration for the role this university’s president. The president is a vital aspect of any university. They are a leader, an ambassador, and a potential ally for the students.
The aforementioned ‘progressive’ nature of his appointment is the main question on most minds that are interested in what lies ahead for the University. To some, a progressive appointment may mean bringing in a president who will shift the flow of funding in favour of Arts over Science. Or maybe, progressiveness means a wholly international approach to boosting this college’s reputation and putting local issues on the back burner.
The following interview with Prof. Deeks looks to gauge his opinions on the three major aspects of UCD that will demand his attention most over the course of his tenure: education, student services, international relations. Meanwhile, the personal aspect of the interview attempts to give students and staff alike a chance to learn more about Prof. Deeks as a person and tell the story of how a civil engineer eventually found himself as the head of Ireland’s largest university.
Prof. Andrew Deeks was born in the United Kingdom in 1963, but his family emigrated to western Australia when he was six-years-old. His career path reflects that of an ambitious academic. Not one that is necessarily trying to climb as high as he can for the self-satisfaction of being in positions of power, but the kind of ambitious academic that needs each career step they take to be a different and unique challenge.
He was educated in western Australia, attending the University of Western Australia (UWA) to study for his Bachelor of Engineering. After graduating, he entered the workforce, but his passion for academia brought him back to education and when his former lecturer he suggested he should go back and apply for a senior tutor position at UWA that became available, he did.
Reflecting on reentering academia, Deeks spoke of how he “decided to go back and basically never left. The combination of teaching students and doing original research was exciting and kept me interested.”
After receiving his Doctorate from UWA in 1992, Deeks spent another 17 years at the university, progressing from his senior tutor role, to lecturer, to the Deputy Head of School in the Civil & Resource Engineering wing of UWA, and finally to the Head of School in 2004.
Each progression so far has been a measured step up, and when the opportunity presented itself to move abroad and take on that next challenge as Pro Vice-Chancellor of Science at Durham University, Deeks felt it was the natural move to make.
“It was the opportunity that came up at that time,” says Deeks. “I had some existing research collaboration with Durham University and I had just reached the end of a five-year term as the Head of School at UWA when my research collaborator from Durham told me of the advert for the Pro Vice-Chancellor position… so I applied and the rest was history.”
The role of Pro Vice-Chancellor brought new challenges that Deeks took in his stride. However, when a recruitment agency called about possibly applying for UCD President, his interest in a new challenge was again piqued.
“I looked into the University more, I wasn’t familiar with it at that stage. I looked into its history, its standing within Ireland and within the world and decided that this was a very interesting opportunity.
“It’s an interesting process going from Australia to the UK to Ireland, and seeing the differences and similarities between the three different places. When I went from Australia to the UK then it seemed like everything slowed down, it took longer to do everything. Now I’ve come to Ireland it seems like everything happens really quickly here. It’s a bit of a reversal.”
For Deeks, the draw of this position was the chance to affect change and deal with the education policy change.
“UCD is a big part of the Irish government. There is an opportunity here to not only work with what is happening in UCD, but to influence Higher Education policy for all of Ireland in a positive sense; bringing to the table my experience from both Australia and the UK. I think that is something that makes the opportunity more exciting than another UK university, because those opportunities wouldn’t be there.”
As the first external candidate appointed UCD President, there may be an added pressure to perform, however, Deeks doesn’t feel an added weight of expectation. “I don’t feel added pressure.
“I’ve already gone through the process of moving from one country to another to take on an academic leadership role. Of course, I had previously a leadership role in the university I has worked up in.
“I have found that moving to a new university, coming into the position of responsibility is better, is easier, because you come in and see things as they are now and also the people there see you as you are now.
“That gives you a significant advantage over someone who has had a long history with the institution and has certain bias and experienced certain things. I’ve been able to come in and see UCD, where it is now, then start working with the leadership team to see where we want to go.”
‘Where we want to go’ is very much on President Deeks’ mind. Speaking about the advice he has been taking about the role, it is interesting to note that he hasn’t spoken to his predecessor, Dr Hugh Brady, but has primarily sourced his advice from people directly associated with the University.
“The current members of the University Management Team have been giving me advice on the various aspects of the University. I’ve also been having meetings with several of the influential alumni of the University and getting their perspective and their advice, but I haven’t met with Dr Brady since taking on the role.”